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Surfside Building Collapse Sparks Scrutiny Over Power Of Condo Association Boards

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Following the collapse of the 12-story condominium in Surfside, Fla., local governments are cracking down on buildings that are behind on their required inspections and repairs. In Miami Beach alone, more than 500 buildings are undergoing emergency inspections. Danny Rivero of member station WLRN has the story of how one condo board is struggling to meet the deadline.

DANNY RIVERO, BYLINE: Since the Champlain Towers South condo collapse in Surfside, Katja Esson has been obsessively reading the news about what led up to it.

KATJA ESSON: It all feels very familiar.

RIVERO: The inspection reports, communication problems with the town of Surfside, the bickering on the condo board that delayed decision-making, and the pushback from residents to pay for needed repairs.

ESSON: Our condo is much, much smaller. But we have the same issues, basically. And, I mean, we're going through exactly, you know, the 40-year recertifications right now. This building - the previous boards have not done anything. I would really say for, like, 20 years, nothing was done in this building. And now we're facing everything.

RIVERO: Things like roof repairs, an upgrade to the electrical system and patching up the concrete. Esson is on the condo board at the Shore Apartments building in Miami Beach. The pastel pink, three-story building is right on the water. It was built in the 1940s and is historically protected. Esson says everything about maintaining it has been a struggle.

ESSON: It is just every step is a nightmare.

RIVERO: The Shore Apartments is more than a year behind on its recertification - basically verifying that it's safe. Buildings need to do this once they reach 40 years old in Miami-Dade County and once every 10 years after that. Ekaterina Justowski joined the condo board because she was passionate about preserving the property.

EKATERINA JUSTOWSKI: I dream of the day where I could just resign from the board and never think about it again. For now, I'm volunteering because I feel that it's needed. And it's kind of attitude - if not me, then who?

RIVERO: The power and dynamics of condo boards are in the spotlight after the Surfside collapse. In Florida, the agency that regulates condo boards has a tiny budget, $7 1/2 million, in a state with about 4 1/2 million condo units.

JASON PIZZO: It's ridiculous. And I've said it since the first day that I got elected. It's ridiculous.

RIVERO: Democratic State Senator Jason Pizzo, whose district includes Surfside, says the level of government oversight for condo boards has to be fixed.

PIZZO: It's basically something where Florida has just for so long bent over backwards to incentivize development, to be completely subservient, to sort of go it alone into property rights as opposed to - I'm not a huge fan of overregulation. But we're talking about life safety issues.

RIVERO: Condo boards do have existing legal obligations under Florida law. If there are safety problems, they must address them. And that's what concerns Katja Esson at the Shore Apartments. Condo boards don't always know what they're doing, she says. And they need help, especially after the tragedy at Champlain Towers South in Surfside.

ESSON: If I would have been on that board, you know, what would I've done different? Would I - would I've understood the warnings correctly? Would I've known, you know, what the engineer - what they're telling me? Would I - would I've been able to push quickly enough, you know? But then also, our experience here, things go so slow. I can understand why things took so long.

RIVERO: The Shore Apartments building has until July 19 to certify that it's safe for residents. And if it doesn't meet that deadline, the building could be evacuated over safety concerns.

For NPR News, I'm Danny Rivero in Miami Beach.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "THIS NEW YEAR'S ABSENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.